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The Life and Times of So Inclined

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

So Inclined KidsFor four years, one month, and two days, a temporary installation by international sculpture artist Patrick Dougherty stood sentry outside the Mahaney Center for the Arts. So Inclined, made of locally harvested twigs, was one of the most visited and loved pieces of outdoor art on campus. It held up longer than anyone anticipated, and this fall the artist and the College decided to dismantle it before it became unsafe.

Dougherty has created more than 225 installations around the world in places like museums, sculpture parks, private homes, colleges, and businesses. His works are almost always large-scale and often incorporate playful swirls and shapes. So Inclined consisted of nine seemingly windblown towers nestled together. “I purposely situated the piece prominently at the entrance where the sidewalks converge,” said Dougherty. “I wanted to interrupt the flow of traffic in the hopes that people would stop and engage with the work.”

Dougherty first came to Middlebury in the spring of 2006 to meet with members of the Committee for Art in Public Places and scout out the proposed site for his installation. The committee, chaired by Museum of Art Director Richard Saunders, oversees the selection and implementation of the campus’s collection of accessible and distinguished public art.

The artist’s next visit was in September 2007, when he arrived to install the work. After harvesting local hardwood saplings from nearby stream banks, Dougherty did what he always does before getting to work: he called on the community for help.

Building So InclinedAt the heart of Dougherty’s artistic mission is his commitment to engage the community, make use of local materials, and leave behind a standing testament to the collaborative process. So with the help of more than 230 volunteers—including Middlebury students, staff, and faculty, as well as local schoolchildren and community members—Dougherty worked for 20 consecutive days to complete So Inclined.

Everyone was encouraged to stop by the site during the assembly, whether to lend a hand or simply contemplate the progress. “It’s a public process,” said Dougherty. “A lot of people just watch. But some people just walk up and tell me what they think I should be doing.”

One art teacher who brought her students on several occasions to help strip the limbs of leaves and assemble them for the artist was Eileen Gombosi of St. Mary’s School. “They were so excited to be a part of the process with the artist himself,” she said. “It only made it all the more special when we returned again and again to sketch the sculpture or just play in it. They are sad to see it go, but they’ll also never forget it.”

Twisted sticks. Twig huts. Cone houses. The playful swirls of limbs enjoyed multiple nicknames from students, townspeople, and even passing tourists. One thing they weren’t was unnoticed.

“We were surprised it lasted as long as it did,” said Museum Curator Emmie Donadio. “But so many people have enjoyed it while it was here.”

So InclinedOn a frosty October morning, a few workers from Facilities Services were the earliest—and final—visitors to the sculpture. A well-maneuvered backhoe, three sets of strong arms, and a flatbed truck made short work of disassembling the remarkably sturdy towers. Dry limbs snapped easily in the chilly air, and in just a few hours, So Inclined was no more. As a few passersby stopped to watch, the truck pulled out with its final load of crushed twigs and headed for the stump dump where So Inclined will become the much-needed mulch that is used all over campus to protect and nourish the College’s trees and shrubs.


This Is How They Did It

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Solar Decathlon PlanningWhen Florida Governor Rick Scott said a few months ago that “we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state . . . I want to spend our [state] dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees,” he fired the latest salvo in a war of ideas that centers on the cost and value of higher education in America.

With student loan debt skyrocketing—by many estimates, the country is poised to see this figure pass the $1 trillion mark, which would push it past the amount of credit-card debt in America—the relevance and utility of a liberal arts education is being called into question: is it worth it?

For centuries, the answer has been “yes,” the belief being that a liberal education—the broad exposure to knowledge from across academic disciplines—best prepares a person for all the challenges one will face in life. “Yes, but not if such an education is static,” Middlebury’s President Ron Liebowitz told me recently. “A liberal arts education for the 21st century must be dynamic—it must create connections between its foundational qualities and the larger world.

“It must also provide opportunities for students to use their critical faculties and skills, honed through the exposure to a wide range of ideas and a diversity of approaches to accumulating knowledge,” he continued. “Such an education allows one to see things more broadly, understand things more fully, approach problems more creatively, and where appropriate, develop ways to address these problems. That is the value of a liberal arts education that a highly specialized education doesn’t offer.”

Challenging convention is not new to Middlebury. The College itself began as an odd notion—an “experiment,” Liebowitz noted in his 2004 inaugural address, founded without government support in a “tiny settlement,” isolated in the frigid Northeast. Then in 1915, Vassar College German professor Lilian Stroebe saw Middlebury’s remoteness as the perfect setting for an immersive language program, a Universität on Otter Creek. The burgeoning Language Schools soon attracted international scholars and sheltered brave thinkers fleeing totalitarian regimes—from Spain, Italy, Russia, and elsewhere.

When Joseph Battell died and bequeathed the College his Bread Loaf Inn in nearby Ripton, the school prepared to sell it until two English professors knocked on the president’s door with a bold proposal: allow them to found a graduate school of English and use the Inn as their mountain campus. The notion of Ripton, Vermont, as a literary polestar would once have been risible, but in 1921 Robert Frost arrived to teach, and five years later he helped launch the nation’s first writers’ conference there.

And in 1965, when Middlebury quite literally invented a new major, environmental studies, its interdisciplinary curriculum spread like brushfire to universities throughout the country. Little did the College know it was sowing the seeds for today’s carbon-neutrality pledge, its LEED-platinum environmental center, and its biomass facility.

Whatever traits have crept into the campus gene pool in the last two hundred years, risk aversion is not one of them. Which is why it shouldn’t be surprising that Liebowitz would be advocating and leading the charge for an evolved definition of what a liberal arts education might become. But even that did not prepare him to consider, at first, an audacious idea proposed by his wife Jessica in early June 2009.